We spend a third of our lives doing it. It’s vital to our health and wellbeing. And yet we don’t always pay enough attention to why we need it!
The answer of course is sleep – something that every single one of us does without giving too much thought to just how important good sleep is to how well we cope with everyday life.
Sleep, regardless of age, is essential for a healthy lifestyle and should not be takenlightly. It is a basic and fundamental human requirement and has restorative functions. As we sleep, tissue grows and repairs itself and the immune system is strengthened. The brain also repairs itself during sleep and researchers believe sleep is critical to healthy brain function. In fact, researchers also believe the brain performs actions vital to learning and memory during sleep. Sleep also affects the levels of hormones and other important chemicals circulating in your body. Getting too little sleep disrupts all of that.
Said Lisa Artis of The Sleep Council: “People go to huge amounts of time and expense to eat well and exercise regularly but without a good night’s sleep all that effort will be in vain. Sleep doesn’t just make us feel better, it can improve our health by decreasing the risk of heart attacks, diabetes, strokes and it helps us fight off minor ailments, deal better with depression and even tackle weight problems.
“A growing body of research, from all over the world, confirms that a comfortable uninterrupted seven or eight hours sleep each night can relieve stress, slow down the ageing process, boost your mood, your physical and mental performance and cure a wide range of aches and pains.”
However, the Sleep Council’s Great British Bedtime Report found that a third of Britons get by on just five to six hours sleep a night, yet research suggests that mental and physical problems become more pronounced in those sleeping for less than six hours. Not sleeping enough may ramp up the ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, releasing hormones that speed up heart rate and raise blood pressure.
It’s important to remember it is about the quality of the sleep you get, not the quantity. The best way to determine if you’re getting enough sleep is to look at how you feel the next day. Being tired doesn’t mean you’ve not had enough sleep. However, if you feel sleepy, exhausted and unable to function then chances are you are not sleeping well.
To ensure you experience good sleep it’s essential to follow good lifestyle habits and to eliminate the factors that are causing you disturbed sleep.
One area that causes disturbed sleep is stress and worry. The Sleep Council’s 2017 research found that many of us are too anxious to sleep: nearly half of the respondents said that stress or worry keeps them awake at night (45%) rising to 50% of women (compared to 39% of men) and 58% of those in a relationship.
Said Lisa: “Pressures of illness, uncertainty and the burden of responsibility often lead to stress and worry. Not only that but many of us lead very stressful working lives and with the onslaught of technology, scientists claim that many people are struggling with an information overload caused by the blurring of boundaries between work and home. It seems people don’t understand that they don’t have to be ‘available’ 24 hours a day.”
This in turn can affect mental health and wellbeing. There’s a close relationship between sleep and mental health. Lack of sleep can affect mental health but mental health problems can also affect how well you sleep – both the quantity and the quality of it – so it’s extremely important to address both issues.
“Those who don’t sleep well because of health issues often look to medication and drinking alcohol to try and get a better night’s sleep – not the best solutions,” said Lisa.
“Many also turn to more natural, alternative or self-help solutions – from meditation and homeopathy to sleep advice lines and sleep clinics to cognitive behavioural therapy courses. Often people neglect the obvious basics such as a good sleep-orientated environment, a comfortable bed and proper bedtime wind down routines.”
It can also help for people to write down what’s worrying them or talk through their issues with someone – unburdening thoughts can lift a huge weight off someone’s shoulders. Advice on ways to relax is also useful – meditation is a great tool for relaxing body and mind.
Exercise (but not too close to bedtime) can also aid better quality sleep and lower body temperature which also induces sleep. It improves heart health and blood pressure; builds and strengthens bone and muscle; helps combat stress; helps improve mood; and it helps you look and feel better.
It’s also important to establish a regular sleep pattern – going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time. Your bodies and minds will feel much better for it.
And one of the essential keys to unlocking a good night’s sleep is without doubt creating – and maintaining – a perfect sleep environment.
This covers everything from light, temperature, comfort and distractions. Turn off mobile phones, tablets etc well before bedtime and, if you can, ban them from the bedroom altogether. Leaving them on will not only prevent you from falling asleep, but they may become disruptive at inopportune times and wake you up again. Also, exposure to even the weakest glow at night – for example, your TV’s standby button – can subconsciously play havoc with your body’s circadian rhythms.
Comfort – whether that’s the bed or the bedding – also plays a large part in optimising sleep.
“Buy the right bed and you could be buying into night after night of quality sleep. Anyone who has ever slept in a really comfortable or really dreadful old bed will know how it can impact on the quality of rest.
“For added reassurance, make sure you look for a bed with an NBF Approved label so you can be sure that the product you’re buying is safe, clean and honest. All members of the trade association, the National Bed Federation (NBF), must be independently audited to ensure they follow the procedures that comply with flammability, health and hygiene and trade descriptions regulations.”